Pantomime may well be a ritual element of the British Christmas and it may well be most children's first introduction to the magic of theatre, but it is also a kind of annual benefit plan for the `where are they now' brigade.
"The more boos you get the more money you get", explained Paul Elliott ("the Sam Goldwyn of British Panto") as he tried to persuade Britt Ekland to get into character as the Wicked Queen in Cinderella. You can see that this particular theatrical equation might have a powerful appeal to performers who - let's be tactful about this - would otherwise have to visit the nearest duckpond if they wanted to see the top of a bill. Pantomime may well be a ritual element of the British Christmas and it may well be most children's first introduction to the magic of theatre, but it is also a kind of annual benefit plan for the "where are they now" brigade - entertainers who some time ago passed through the one-way digestive tract of television. There was a telling scene in Pantoland (Channel 4), the first of a four-part series on this rather grisly national tradition, in which you saw Elliott breaking the news to Danny La Rue that he would be working in Sheffield that year, rather than a theatre closer to his home in the South. This was presented as if it was a touch-and-go moment, requiring an entrepreneur's full arsenal of flattery and charm - but what else was he going to say but "yes"? "Sorry, but the National Theatre are after me for Lady Macbeth and unless it's Southampton I walk"?

Ian Taylor's first film followed Elliott's complex preparations for the staging of around 20 pantos, some of which will already have worked off their investment costs and others which are just beginning the long road to profit (it takes around five years for a new panto to break even). And what you saw was a pretty familiar routine of theatrical auditions and rehearsals, occasionally interrupted by Elliott's ego-dogfights on the telephone, conversations that were frustratingly one-sided; it would have been nice to know, for example, who it was that he described as "nasty evil little shits" but there wasn't even a hint from the narration (perhaps the producers intended to let you in on the secret but the lawyers had all shouted "Oh no you don't!" in unison). It didn't exactly help that the film lacked a sense of dramatic structure; although Elliott talked several times about the "gasp-factor" it didn't feel as if the programme had quite absorbed this lesson in crowd-pleasing style. Indeed they hadn't even taken care to arrange a memorable finale - the film simply petered out on the end of a rehearsal, an aimless fade which left me, at least, a little reluctant to recommend the production to others.

Which brings us, ineluctably, to Spark (BBC1), Roy Clarke's sit-com about a middle-aged bachelor, venturing into the relationship game after the death of his mother. The basic plotline here looks suspiciously like Woody Allen's Play It Again Sam. James Fleet takes the Allen role of the klutzy but lovable sexual incompetent, while Jan Francis takes the Diane Keaton part of the attractive friend who tries to help him out with relationships (she even has a suave, workaholic husband with an unhealthy attachment to his telephone). As in the Allen film there's quite a bit of slapstick embarrassment when Spark meets up with his blind dates, and while there's no firm evidence yet that he and Francis will suddenly become aware of their feelings for each other (as their originals did in the Allen film) the odd mutter of marital discontent from her suggests that it's not yet safe to rule it out. There are variations, naturally; this version has no equivalent of the moments when Humphrey Bogart appears to give amorous advice - not unless you count the world-weary cleaning lady, Mrs Rudge, who provides a similar kind of service in between sweeping the stairs. The most damaging departure, though, is the fact that Fleet's character appears to have a mental age of six. Where Allen balanced his public awkwardness with a sophisticated, self-knowing wit in private (allowing you to sympathise with him even as he floundered), Ashley is so dimwitted and naive that you feel almost embarrassed to be in his company - the only person you can really sympathise with is the appalled object of his inappropriate affections.